The Free World of Fair Trade

You might have seen that fair trade label, on a handwoven hat, a package of rice, an urn of coffee in a coffee shop, or a set of cotton sheets. Ever wonder exactly what that means?

Fair trade is an international certification program that links farmers and artisans in producer countries with consumers in First World countries. The goal of the fair trade process is to alleviate world poverty by empowering small producers. By eliminating middleman costs, more profit is returned to the producers while prices are kept competitive for consumers.

Harvesting Fair Trade Coffee

Fair trade is much more than just a means to negotiate a fair price—the concept is aimed at supporting environmental sustainability, respecting cultural identity, and building grassroots democracy. That might seem like a tall order, but fair trade is a fast-growing success story: 35,000 U.S. retailers and restaurants now carry fair trade products, benefiting about 800,000 small-scale farmers. Worldwide sales for 2006 totaled 1.6 billion euros, a 41% increase over the previous year.

World Fair Trade Day is celebrated each year on the second Saturday of May. Visit the World Fair Trade Day Official Website for details.

History

The idea of fair trade as a way for wealthier countries to help poor countries originated in the radical movements of the 1960’s in Europe. The goal was to help create worker-run cooperatives and associations and link them directly to importers. This model provided an alternative to the industrial sweatshops and impoverished farms from which virtually all profit flowed to foreign investors or local elites, leaving nothing with which to build the economic and social health of the communities.

Most of the goods were handicrafts, sold in volunteer-run “World Shops” and via mail-order by such nonprofit groups as Oxfam. In the 1980’s, alternative trade organizations—worried about the effects of the fall of commodities prices on small farmers in third world countries—began marketing agricultural products as well.

However, it was only when fair trade auditing, certification, and labeling programs were put into place (beginning in 1988), that the concept of fair trade really became widely known and respected. Slowly, the agricultural sector took pre-eminence—by 2002, almost 70% of Fair trade sales were food products.

How It Works

Different organizations specialize in different aspects of fair trade. The Fair Trade Federation is an association of producers, wholesalers, and retailers committed to fair trade principles. The organization is based in Washington D.C. with sister organizations in other countries.

The Fair Trade Resource Network is dedicated to providing education about fair trade and how your buying decisions affect the producers of the products you use. It also works to facilitate better communication within the fair trade movement.


Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International
(FLO), is an umbrella organization that develops certification standards and labeling practices, and provides support for producers who would like to become fair trade certified. TransFair USA is a U.S.-based nonprofit organization under the FLO umbrella that audits and certifies fair trade coffee and other food products for the U.S. market.

Supporting Fair Trade

How can you, as an individual, help the fair trade movement? The first and easiest way is to look for the fair trade label when shopping. In the grocery store, you’ll find tropically produced fair trade foods such as coffee, tea, sugar, bananas, and other fruits, rice, cocoa, and vanilla.

Online and in local retail stores, toys, gifts, house wares, furniture, jewelry, clothing, and many other products are available with certified fair trade labeling. For help finding products, visit the Fair Trade Federation.

Use fair trade resources to educate yourself (and your children) about the products you buy:

  • Where do they come from?
  • What are the conditions under which they’re made?
  • What’s the culture of the people who make them?

For an in-depth education on fair trade and why it is important, go to the Fair Trade Institute’s online library.

Going further, you can help educate your community about fair trade and why it is important by bringing fair trade products into your workplace, faith community, or school. And, most importantly, you can ask your favorite local retailers to carry fair trade goods.

Fair trade as a practice is making a difference in the living conditions in third world countries that depend upon trade with developed nations. Unlike charity and large-scale foreign aid, fair trade works one business, one farm at a time, without hand-outs, giving people the means to make their lives and their children’s lives better, while making the world a more just and equitable place. That benefits everyone.


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